Lorianne takes five precepts

One fun side-effect of sorting through old paperwork is the occasional serendipitous discovery of old photos. I’d thought I’d lost this April, 1995 photo of me taking Five Precepts at the Providence Zen Center: at one point I’d used the photo as a bookmark in my copy of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, so since I’d lent that to a student only to never see it again, I assumed this sole extant image of me in my stubbly-headed days had gone the way of the proverbial dodo. Apparently, though, I had the foresight to take this picture out of that book before lending it to a student, for I found the picture sandwiched between other seemingly “important” papers in a nearly-forgotten backpack. Thank goodness for serendipity!

If you’ve never attended a Buddhist precepts ceremony, the picture deserves some explanation. First of all, you’re not required to shave your head to take Five Precepts; I was simply crazy enough at that point in my life to shave my head for the fun of it. (I’d recently been accepted into my PhD program and figured I had nothing to lose: if I ever wanted to try bald-headedness, that was the time to do it.) Second, you should know that taking Five Precepts is an official public statement of your intention to follow a Buddhist path. It isn’t exactly a conversion ceremony, though, since becoming a Buddhist isn’t mutually exclusive to being some other religion as well: I know Christian Buddhists and Jewish Buddhists and pagan Buddhists and atheist ones, too. Making a public commitment to Buddhism simply means that you think the Buddha’s teachings are one clear-minded way to live your life and you intend to try your best to follow them. In a word, you’re making a public commitment to walk a spiritual path that recognizes the Five Precepts as being guideposts to clear and compassionate living:

  • I vow to abstain from taking life.
  • I vow to abstain from taking things not given.
  • I vow to abstain from misconduct done in lust.
  • I vow to abstain from lying.
  • I vow to abstain from intoxicants taken to induce heedlessness.

Meditation room

There is, as you can see, a lot of “wiggle room” in the Five Precepts. What exactly is “misconduct done in lust,” for instance? Is moderate social drinking a “heedful” use of intoxicants? Does the first precept imply a vegetarian lifestyle? Having known many a Buddhist over the years, let me assure you that there’s plenty of carnivorous, wine-swilling, flesh-enjoying stuff going on…and I’ve known plenty of abstemious types who have refrained from all three. Buddhist practice in general and the Five Precepts in particular aren’t so much about what you do but why you do it. If your life is ruled by selfish desires, you’re going to cause suffering for yourself and others whether you eat, drink, and make whoopie or not. My favorite Buddhist story involves the Zen monk Won Hyo, who after 20 years of meticulous precept-keeping attained enlightenment only after spending the night in a whorehouse where he drank wine, ate meat, and broke “more than one precept” (nudge nudge, wink wink). Nobody likes a prude, and no one likes a selfish sensualist either. Somewhere between the two is the Middle Path, and the Five Precepts try to point to that.

Dharma room altar

In my Zen school, people who take Five Precepts are given a gray bowing robe, a brown apron-like kasa to wear over that robe, and a Buddhist name. At one point during every precepts ceremony, Five Preceptors approach the altar one by one to hear their new Buddhist name read aloud; they then have to demonstrate in front of the assembled multitude that they understand the true meaning of that name. My Buddhist name is Won Jin, which means “Original Truth.” So the above photo of stubble-headed me captures the precise moment when something like following interchange transpired between me and Zen Master Dae Kwang:

    ZMDK: Your new name is Won Jin, which means Original Truth. So, Lori, what is this Original Truth?
    L: (claps hands)
    ZMDK: Is that all?
    L: Your robe is gray!

Now, in most cases that would be the end of the exchange: the Zen Master would exclaim “Very good,” the student would bow, and certificates and congratulations would be granted. But by the time I took Five Precepts in 1995, I’d already been practicing for years, and Zen Master Dae Kwang knew he could get away with pushing me a bit.

    ZMDK: Yeah, my robe is gray: that’s plain old ordinary truth…but is it Original Truth?
    L: Of course it is!

Even before I was the Zen Mama, I had enough sass to hold my ground in front of a Zen Master and the assembled masses: I know Original Truth when I see it, buddy, and ain’t you or nobody else gonna tell me otherwise. The Five Precepts, after all, are simply about seeing clearly: right now, in this moment, what is the most compassionate thing to do? If you slavishly attach yourself to some doctrine or dogma, you’ll probably miss the nose on your face; if you try to wake up, moment to moment, what you should or shouldn’t do will make itself known. And if you know what’s right and true and have the guts and wherewithal to stick to it, not even a slick Zen Master can push you off your game.

And so I’m very glad to have found this picture of stubble-headed me way back when I was a Zen baby. It reminds me of a time when I was simultaneously strong and entirely open-minded about practice: an old hand at meditation, I was new to the notion of being a “Buddhist,” and I was wide-eyed and curious when it came to exploring the territory. If nothing else, it’s kind of fun to compare my nearly-ten-years-older, infinitely-hairier 2004 self to the young idealistic pup I used to be: you’ve come a long way, Zen baby!

If you want more reminders of what I look like now, with hair, check out my three new contributions to the Mirror Project.